Fringe, much like BBC Radio 4 (Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this) is a perfect example of what happens when you leave something alone to grow and develop on its own terms. What started out as a show with pretty much exactly the same premise as The X-Files evolved, very quickly, into something much spikier and more interesting than it first appeared. In five years, the show ran the gamut from spy thriller to full on parallel universe science fiction, stopping for possibly the only discussion of scientific terrorism so far this century. Everything about the show, for me, didn’t just work but both demanded and rewarded attention. The monster of the week episodes often plugged into the uber-plot in surprising ways, the show would often answer questions inside the same season they were raised and the central cast were consistently excellent. Anna Torv in particular does amazing work as she’s called upon to play multiple iterations of the same character at the same time as slowly opening Olivia up from the buttoned-down Federal agent we meet in the pilot.
It’s not perfect by any means, entire plots, and characters, ultimately dead-ended and the temporal physics of a couple of plots are incredibly torturous but Fringe did extraordinary things in five seasons, including a cheeky wink to its predecessor that made my black little postmodernist heart beat a little faster. That willingness to take chances, and cross boundaries both in show and out, has transferred over to September’s Notebook, the first in a series of tie-in books published by Titan.
The first thing you notice about September’s Notebook is it’s size. This is a chunky, hardback tome of a thing with some real weight to it. The second thing you notice is that the book’s existence actually neatly embodies one of the principles of the series; it’s a copy of a book referenced repeatedly in the final season, a notebook that exiled Observer September kept in the years the main characters were missing. Or, In Fringe parlance, it’s a book from ‘over there’ that’s made it’s way ‘over here’ The history of the Fringe universe from a man who simultaneously is part of it and distanced from it.
The end result could have been a mess but instead, it’s extraordinary. What authors Tara Bennett and Paul Terry have done here is taken what could have been a pretty standard episode guide and turned it into something that provides real insight into the series as a whole. We’re walked through the lives of Walter, Peter, Olivia and William Bell from the very beginning, showing how September observed all of them leading up to his ‘mistake’ in Walter’s lab. We’re also shown, in tremendous detail, Walter and William Bell’s scientific careers, Bell’s relationship with Nina Sharp and the tragic events at Reiden Lake. All of this is illustrated with concept sketches from the show, photographs of props and constant annotations and observations from September. The level of detail is frankly amazing, to the point where, during the section on Olivia’s experiences in the Cortexiphan trials, the book reproduces the drawings she did showing the universe she travelled to.
This level of detail, if anything, intensifies as the book steps into the show’s actual continuity. Each episode is given a brief summary, formatted like a Fringe Division incident report, again with notes from September and copious illustrations. The more arc important cases, such as White Tulip, have further notes from September and scattered throughout the book are envelopes marked LEVEL 10 CLEARANCE. These include things like an Observer propaganda poster and detailed briefings on the shapeshifters and the Machine, which is also graced with a beautiful reproduction of the diagrams of it we saw in the show. This is both a charming bit of over-designing and, in the case of the Machine and September’s note on it, a playful nod to one of the creakier elements of the show’s mythology, with even the Observers getting a little turned around by its complicated history.
This level of self-awareness and attention to detail runs throughout the book, but is really highlighted in the section dealing with Over There. We get a complete breakdown of the Fringe cases we saw from Over There as well, all of which are on Fringe Division headed paper, framed by a collection of stills of Show Me cards and other items unique to that universe. In other words, the chapter looking at Over There is designed to look like the information in it was gathered from Over There. There’s real visual imagination and wit to this section in particular and it’s particularly nice to see the Red Arrow and Opus the Peahen fake comics make a return too.
The section dealing with the final season, whilst shorter than the previous ones also impresses. Again there’s a real sense of visual wit to it, with several photos overlaid with the HUD from the Observer’s binoculars and the beautiful resistance posters from the show scattered throughout the section. Most impressive of all, there’s a breakdown of Walter and September’s plan, the items they need for it and what happened to September during the years Walter was ambered. Again, lavishly illustrated with everything from cyphers for the Observer language to art from the comic based on Fringe Division we saw in The Recordist it’s a fantastically detailed section. Unfortunately, this is the one place where the book’s status as an in-universe artifact works against it, as the events of the final episodes are absent due to September being a little busy to meticulously scrapbook them.
September’s Notebook is an incredibly well put together piece of work. Whilst it doesn’t hang a lantern on all the show’s unanswered questions it provides you with both a guide to the show’s timeline and a very different perspective on events. The attention to detail gives you a real sense of September’s chillingly calm, organized mind and his ability to plan across universes and vast swathes of time. Packed with images, details and insights into one of the best TV shows of the last ten years, September’s Notebook is a must for any fans of the show. It’s a relentlessly smart, detailed, accessible piece of work that isn’t just a good companion for Fringe but an indicator of what licensed books can be.
Fringe: September’s Notebook is written by Tara Bennett and Paul Terry with a foreword by JH Wyman and Jeff Pinkner. It’s published by Titan Books and is available now, priced £29.99